Changing Heritage Practice: Reframing the Profession

Kirsty Earley discusses how the heritage team are approaching equality, diversity, and inclusion with collections at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

Heritage institutions are changing. In fact, heritage institutions have always been changing in order to respond the ever-evolving culture. Change is vital for cultural institutions and their professionals as it enables them to grow, and through growth comes reflection, accountability, and learning.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced museums and the like to adapt, especially with regards to how they communicate stories of heritage in a world that has completely altered.  One example of this has been digital presence – the investment in digital technology in order to engage with audiences and provide virtual access to heritage items has turned from a potential to an essential.

Working completely virtually has been something that we as a heritage team at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow have had to adapt to; not only are we working from home away from our museum, archive, and library collections, but all of our events and exhibitions have moved from the physical world to the online world. As an institution, the College has had to transfer what would have been in-person training courses and conferences to online webinars and examinations for clinicians, a first in its history. It has been a tough lesson for us in patience, creativity, and motivation.

One of our new series of digital events addresses another element of change in heritage: how we portray stories from history in the light of current cultural issues. “Reframed: Conversations about Heritage and Inclusion” was launched in February 2021 and has revolved around conversations discussing issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion in medical heritage. The need to reframe heritage and look at it through a new lens was made evident through the protests in the United Kingdom around statues of historical figures who were known sympathizers and profiteers in the slave trade (Gompertz, 2020). It’s not about re-writing history, it’s about re-framing it.

The College’s heritage, along with many prestigious institutions, has predominantly been narrated by privileged white men, creating an image of prestige and exclusivity. As a result, our heritage presents a very narrow view of the world that perpetuates this image of “superiority”.

Image credit: Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

The first two events of the series focused on prominent men in medical history – Joseph Lister and David Livingstone. There is no question that both men did incredible work in the fields of medicine and surgery, but this did not make them immune to fallibility. Traditionally these men have been presented in a heroic light – Lister, the scientific surgeon who changed the face of clinical practice through his antiseptic principle, and Livingstone, the selfless medical missionary who travelled to Africa to save lives.

However, both men have had details of their legacy omitted to fit the mold of “White Saviour”. Lister was famously opposed to the admission of women into the medical and surgical professions, and even refused to allow women to attend his clinical lectures during his career. A conversation around this recently took place during the Glasgow Royal Infirmary’s Lister Week where events were held to celebrate Lister’s legacy and reputation in the city. Ironically one of the panelists of the event, Fiona Leitch, is a colorectal surgeon at the Royal Infirmary where Lister forbade women from attending his ward rounds 160 years previously.

This theme of gender inequality has also been discussed with regards to the representation of the female body in historical anatomical textbooks and the admission of women into the College as members and fellows. The history of women practicing medicine and surgery is a complex one involving restrictive legislations and playing the system to find loopholes in policies to overcome discrimination. The College is no stranger to this discrimination; although women were eligible to receive medical licenses from 1876, the College did not admit a female licentiate until 1886, (Hay, 2021).

Fellows dinner in College Hall, c. 1914. Image credit: Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

Additionally, in a history spanning over 400 years only one president of the College has been a woman, Professor Jacqueline Taylor, who is currently in office. We must not shy away from this inequality in gender in our heritage. We must address it.

I will be honest – before these events (and the public protests that partly inspired them), issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion were not always at the forefront of my mind when planning the digitization of heritage items. When I started my role at the College collections items were just that- items. I had no previous knowledge of or experience in the heritage sector, in fact my background was a scientific, impersonal one. Assigning feelings and emotions to items of medical heritage was quite alien to me. I was lacking the human-ness of medical heritage.

These Reframed events have forced me to stop and question many things about my everyday workflow. Do I approach heritage with any unknown prejudices? Should we display or digitize items in our collections that perpetuate segregation and prestige? Which images from our archives should we use for marketing and engagement? And are they appropriate?

A recent example of reconsidering my digitization work was during our third Reframed event, “The Female Body in Medical Education: Representation and Consent.” An image of three anatomical models from Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica was shown as part of an overview of the College’s collection of anatomical books. I know this image well because it was one I fabricated myself for an exhibition; the image was digitally stitched together from three separate woodcuts of anatomical dissections, ultimately creating a panoramic view of the Italian countryside in the background. Personally I saw no issue with publicly displaying the image- the dissections were anatomically accurate and that was my main concern for the exhibition. However, looking at this image during the Reframed event brought to light the issues that I should have considered. What does this image say about consent, and what does our use of it communicate to our audience? Is it offensive? Is it sensationalizing anatomy for the purposes of entertainment?

Panoramic image from De Humani Corporis Fabrica, c. 1543. Image credit: Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow

When I saw the image on the screen I was somewhat ashamed of my ignorance. As much as I love the image and the monumental moment in medical history that it represents, I am uncertain now as to whether I would be comfortable with displaying it in the same way again for a museum exhibition. My views have been challenged.

Through these events we not only want to challenge members of the audience in how they view medical heritage, but challenge ourselves as heritage professionals, reflect on how we have communicated issues of inclusivity, equality, and diversity, account for times when we have not communicated these issues well, and change for the future.

Heritage professionals are accountable for how they portray the heritage they care for, and the general public deserve that accountability and honesty. As humans we innately do not want to shed light on our errors or biases, but this is where reflection is so important. Reflection brings accountability, which brings change. And change within the heritage sector will enable us as professionals to better represent and connect to all members of society.

Reframed: Conversations about Heritage and Inclusion are part of the College’s engagement event programme, which can be visited here.

Kirsty Earley is the Digital Heritage and Engagement Officer at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Her work involves the digitization and visualization of museum, archive, and library collections to increase accessibility to heritage items. Kirsty is a registered medical illustrator recipient of the William Hunter Medal for distinction in systemic anatomy from the University of Glasgow.


Works Cited

Gompertz, Will. 2020. “How UK museums are responding to Black Lives Matter.” BBC News, 29 June. Accessed 11 May 2021. <>.

Hay, Kristin. 2021. “Portals to Progress: The Triple Qualification and Women’s Access to Medical Education.” Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow Heritage Blog, 5 May. Accessed 5 May 2021. <>.

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